Even though its story isn’t what the virally-spooky trailers are selling it as, this still seems like the kind of movie I should love. An austerely produced, beautifully shot dark fable about children’s resentment of their parents, it’s sound on paper. But in execution, Goodnight Mommy — this year’s Austrian Oscar submission for Best Foreign Language Film — fails to cohere as a narrative or deeply resonate as horror.
Ten-year-old twins Lukas and Elias (Lukas and Elias Schwarz) have only each other as playmates at their mother’s extraordinarily remote house. Watching them frolic in a field with the cubelike home in the distance is like beholding a chilly, European, modernist version of Wyeth’s Christina’s World. There’s nothing for miles but forest and farmland … so there’s nowhere to run when their mom (Susanne Wuest) comes home, her face mummied up after plastic surgery, and starts exercising harsh discipline on the brothers. It’s not long before they begin to speculate that the woman under those bandages isn’t really their mother; that she is in fact an impostor, a changeling who’s slipped into her bed and has only dark designs in mind.
Society cannot abide a bad mother, and our stories will punish them time and again for their choices. In horror films, such transgressions translate into outsized crimes and literal shapeshifting, and punishments become cosmic and more brutal. On Goodnight Mommy’s isolated stage, a house of too-clean surfaces and rigid furniture arrangement, the war between mother and child plays out as a game of hide-and-seek with a demon. Directors/writers Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala make this space an outsized version of the tank habitat in which Lukas and Elias keep a colony of roaches. All the characters are trapped, and grim developments—like the suspicious death of a stray cat the boys take in—make catastrophe appear inevitable.
But the bulk of Goodnight Mommy stews in this mood without going anywhere. There are many repetitive sequences of the boys tromping off to some new location to stare ominously at something. Likewise do their spooky dreams, in which their “mother” eats roaches or unveils a Jacob’s-Ladder-like neck spasm, wear thin. An hour probably could have been lifted out of the center portion of the film, which would become a much more effective short as a result. When conflict heats in the back stretch, so too does the tension ramp up, but even that culminates in a groaner of a last-minute twist. Goodnight Mommy does enough well that its shortcomings are all the more disappointing.